Saturday, May 23, 2009

Lyon, Here I Come!

Tuesday, May 19, 2009
Lyon, France

My first full day in Lyon began with a typical French breakfast in the Ducote’s kitchen—praline baguette with confiture (jam) and cafe au lait—light and very good. Perhaps one of the things we Americans can learn from the French (the famous book French Women Do Not Get Fat comes to mind) is that it is possible to eat well but lightly by just making one choice per meal and toning down portion size).

Frederic dropped me to the metro station (Gare de Vaise) and showed me where I could wait for a bus in the evening that would bring me back just a few meters away from the gate of their home. I was astonished that less than 15 minutes later, I was in Bellecour, the largest square in Lyon where the Office de Tourisme stared me in the face.

Naturally, that became my first point of contact with the city. Armed with ideas for things to do and places to go (the lady at the counter was very helpful and spoke in French but slowly and clearly so that I understood everything) and with a large map in my hand, I set out first for the funicular train to climb the mountain to Fourviere to see the Church of Notre Dame.

The Church of Notre Dame de Fourviere:
I do remember this church very well from my visit to Lyon, 23 years ago, when I had toured the city in Genevieve’s company. The ride up the steep face of the mountain in the funicular train had been a novel experience for me then and I had written in my journal how impressed I was by the entire arrangement.

On this occasion, I was a little more disappointed. The funicular route to Fourviere was closed due to repair works, but I was able to take the funicular on a neighboring line to St. Just. I got off one stop later at Minimes and then climbed the mountain for fifteen minutes taking a route through the Rosary Garden (Jardin de Rosaires) where I was absolutely charmed by the irises blooming in great big purple clumps everywhere. The sprawling city of Lyon lay at my feet and with each step I took the view got more spectacular.

I was at the summit in less than 15 minutes and like the other tourists that had assembled there, I gaped at the marvelous views on this glorious morning. Summer seemed to have arrived already in this part of France. Not only was the weather warm but also the flowers that scented the air so gloriously were summer ones: irises and roses. It was with difficulty that I tore myself away to make my entrance into the church whose interiors I did not remember at all.

Good job I did not because they were truly stunning. Notre Dame de Fourviere is a confection of Byzantine, Gothic and Renaissance features—there are a marvelous clutch of mosaics all over the walls and the ceiling in the most unusual shades of blue. The materials used are Renaissance ones—lavish pillars clothed in marble and faced with gilding beg to be admired. It is absolutely breath taking. The stained glass windows added to the atmosphere and the silence with which pilgrims prayed at the front only deepened it. I took many pictures after pausing in prayer myself

My next stop was the Crypt, which lay underground, and turned out to be a second, smaller church in itself. Here too, the mosaics gave the interior a Venetian look that was very arresting indeed. Groups of school children out on field trips milled all over the place and guides gave commentaries in many languages.

I chose to make my way down the mountain along the Rose Garden which buzzed with the sound of bees feasting on the nectar to be found in the multitude of rose bushes that climbed the arched trellises and gave off the most inviting perfume. It was certainly one of the high points of my visit to Lyon—this unexpected stroll in a rose garden. Though roses are not my favorite flower (orchids are), I always love to ramble in rose gardens to admire their complicated structure and drink in the pleasures of their fragrance.

Exploring Vieux Lyon:

At the bottom of the mountain that I reached by descending a steep stone staircase, I found myself in Vieux Lyon—the ancient Quarter of Lyon—with its atmospheric cobbled streets, typically rustic bouchons (small eateries), salons de the (tea rooms) and one-of-a-kind boutiques. I can easily ramble through such neighborhoods all day and but for the fact that my feet feel tired and my legs start to ache much more easily than they once did, I could easily have stayed there exploring each winding lane and hidden alley.

Instead, I took pictures of the old medieval houses that have been converted into museums (such as the Museum of Miniatures) where people were assembled in groups to take in the architectural delights of the exterior even if they chose not to enter. It was, after all, a beautiful day, and I too felt that I did not wish to waste it by staying indoors. I, therefore, put off a visit to the Musee de Beaux Arts and decided to explore it later.

Meanwhile, since I had arrived at Place St. Jean where the Gothic cathedral that overlooks the banks of the River Saone stands, I went in for a quick visit. I passed many squares as I took in the glories of the old quarter. Hanging baskets of perennial flowers spoke of a colorful summer and I felt as if I were on holiday (which perhaps I was since I had officially finished with teaching for the year, had handed in grades and begun my summer travels in Lyon).

In Search of the Silk Weavers of Lyon:
I then crossed the Pont de La Fueillee and found myself on the opposite bank of the River Saone. Lyon, by the way, is punctuated by a vast number of bridges (far more than Paris) each of which has its own distinct architectural design and atmosphere. I was on a mission to find the ateliers (workshops) of the canuts (silk weavers) who had put Lyon on the world map in the weaving of silk using ancient methods and traditional techniques.

Indeed, ever since Francois I had granted Lyon the silk import, the city developed a monopoly in the creation of silk garments in the most luxurious textile that money can buy. By 1848, the city boasted 60,000 ateliers, all of which produced ingenious designers who created a huge demand for foulards that graced the necks of many a celebrity. In fact, the famed and much sought-after Hermes silk square with its hand rolled hem is produced in one of these little ateliers, indeed in the atelier of designer Andre Claude Canova whose wares I was also keen to sample.

It was only much later that I discovered that Frederic’s ancestors were silk weavers themselves! It was at the beginning of the 20th century that the silk industry in Lyon died, what with the arrival of synthetic fibers that lured buyers away from these industrious ateliers. In recent years, the uberchic houses of Hermes and Valentino and Cartier had revived a dying industry by having traditional designers (such as Canova) design scarves for them that are made by hand using ancient methods that involve the careful addition of color across wooden dowels that are pushed back and forth between two skilled workers.

My guide book (Lonely Planet) had informed me that a visit to Lyon would be incomplete without a look at some of these ancient ateliers that have been in constant production for centuries. Besides, loving silk scarves as much as I do and having created quite a collection of them—my favorite accessory apart from costume jewelry--I was keen to buy myself one of these treasures to add to my growing collection of European scarves. My quest for one of these began at the atelier of A.C. Canova at 26 Quai St. Vincent, which I reached on foot past some of the prettiest sights in the city such as the buildings whose facades are completely painted to tell the story of the city.

Canova’s atelier is situated in a very old and very lovely courtyard. There is an air-conditioned showroom with a very inviting perfume that draws you inside to admire the wide range of scarves and shawls, pocket sized handkerchiefs (pochettes) and wraps that he produces using extremely classic designs. Each of Canova’s scarves tells a story (as do the scarves he regularly designs for Hermes) and I was at a loss as to which design I should choose. Eventually, given my literature background and the fact that I had spent the entire year traveling as extensively as I have done, I chose one based on the Jules Verne’s novel Around the World in 80 Days which divided the scarf into four sections each of which presented tableaux based on different parts of the world: India, Japan, Europe and America. I found the perfect color combination (peach with shades of blue and green) as well as a stole based on a design for Kenzo that I picked up for Chriselle (in her favorite color—mauve) and then I was out on the street again, thrilled with my buy and so pleased to take away a bit of traditional Lyonnais silk-weaving techniques home with me.

My next stop was the Atelier de Soierie which happened to be just behind the famous Place des Terreaux which is the location of Lyon’s Hotel del Ville or Town Hall, an extremely striking and very ornate building that was embellished in this classic fashion in the 17th century. A Mom and Pop duo who also hand apply their color to wooden frames to painstakingly create scarves that are then embossed with their signature logo run this atelier. Here too, I was very pleased to find a lovely classic scarf on sale that depicted a happening in 1868 in Germany called the Berline Gala. I found it significant since I had also visited Berlin this year. With its blue border and its shades of yellow and green, it made an enchanting addition to my wardrobe and I was pleased as Punch when I walked out of the store.

The Place des Terreaux:
The Place de Terreaux, my next destination, is dominated by a gigantic fountain (that I remembered well from my last visit to Lyon) made by Frederic August Bartholdi who also designed and made the famous Statue of Liberty in New York that France presented to the United States. Bartholdi won a competition run by the City of Lyon for the design of a monument that would decorate their most famous square. He designed four horses (said to represent the world’s four greatest rivers making their way to the sea) pulling a chariot that is driven by a woman. It is a sculpture of great passion, speed and energy made of lead on an iron frame and forms a splendid backdrop for the grand classical buildings that surround this square, such as the Hotel de Ville and the Musee des Beaux Arts.

This museum was my next item of interest and it was with much anticipation that I made my way into its shaded courtyard that was liberally dotted with benches on which so many people quietly dozed. However, I was in for a disappointment as the museum is closed on Tuesdays and I had no choice but to join the rest of the dozers outside for a long rest that allowed me to admire the exterior of this beautiful building that was once a monastery.

When I felt rested enough, I walked towards the Opera House, another Lyonnais landmark, to admire the distinct architecture and the number of sculptures that are dotted around the region. Then, feeling the need to explore the streets that were filled with shoppers, I walked the length of the Rue de la Republique with a large ice-cream in my hand arriving at the Place des Jacobins with its interesting fountain sculpture in the center. In my mind Lyon had always been associated with fountains and I now understood why. Another rest for my feet by its cooling spray and I was on my way again, arriving at the Place Bellecour where I did not stop long as I was keen to see the antiques district which Frederic told me was right behind this area. Alas, I did not find many shops open by the time I arrived there (after 6 pm). I was very tired by this time with all the walking I had done throughout the day and I felt it would be prudent to return home if I wanted to have the stamina to spend exploring more of the city on the morrow.

An Evening with the Ducotes:
So, off I went, homeward bound, taking the metro from Bellecour to Gare de Vaise from where I easily found the bus stop for the Number 22 bus that took me to La Fouchaniere on Monte St. Didier where I then climbed up the hill to the Ducote’s residence. It was almost 7 pm by this time and the boys were winding down for the day at their favorite place—in front of the television set! A little later, Genevieve reached home. Frederic had spent the day cutting the grass in the meadow and pruning the hedges that had started to cover the four stone sculptures representing the four seasons that grace the front lawns of his property.

About an hour later, we sat down to dinner—a Spanish omelet also made by Virginie, that included pancetta, potatoes and, of course, eggs. It was very hearty indeed and was followed by fresh strawberries with chantilly cream. A cup of coffee followed and I wondered if it was that indulgence for which I paid for the next few hours as I lay awake in my bed simply unable to fall asleep! It gave me the opportunity to think of all the delights of the city to which I had introduced myself that day and on that happy note, sometime in the early hours of the morning, I finally fell asleep.

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